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American exceptionalism and Obama’s futile gun control

Written By | Jan 6, 2016

WASHINGTON, January 5, 2016 – President Obama announced executive action today on gun control designed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and to close some background-investigation loopholes. During his speech, he wept openly as he recounted examples of mass shootings, especially the children killed in Newtown, Connecticut.

Critics observe that the rate of gun-related homicide in the U.S. has been dropping since the early 1980s, and that most gun-related deaths are suicides, not homicides. While both observations are true, by the numbers, the U.S. still has a problem with gun-violence. The rate of gun-violence in the U.S. is extremely high when compared to countries like Japan, Iceland, Sweden and Switzerland.

Every year, approximately 33,000 Americans are killed by means of firearms, 10.6 per 100,000 population per year or about 90 per day. Two-thirds of those are suicides; most of the rest are murders or other non-accidental homicides. Just under a thousand are accidental.

Those numbers understate the rate of gun-violence in America. Ninety people die every day from gun-violence, but almost 300 per day are shot; over 200 are shot and survive.

The American murder rate is also high, though because much of that gun-violence is suicide, not murder, it is not as far from the industrial-world average as our gun-violence rate.

This information immediately begs two questions: Why is the American murder rate relatively high compared to the developed world? And why do we compare the U.S. to countries like Japan and Iceland?

The answer to the second question is easy; Japan and Iceland have per capita incomes and standards of living comparable to America’s. Canada, Germany, Sweden and South Korea are all middle- to upper-class nations. We tend to group nations by national income and living standards.

That makes sense when your interest is international development or if you work for the IMF. It probably makes less sense when we’re looking at sociological issues like crime rates.

Japan, Iceland, and most of the European OECD (“developed”) countries have a fraction of America’s population. Most European countries are comparable to individual American states. In every case, their populations are much more homogeneous than America’s. Japan is almost entirely populated by ethnic Japanese, and Iceland by the descendants of Norse settlers. Germany is predominantly white and German, Sweden white and Swedish.

The United states is far more diverse. Just under two-thirds of the population is non-Hispanic white, and that will fall to under 50 percent within a generation. The U.S. is the most genuinely multi-ethnic, multi-racial country in the developed world.

Diversity is considered by many an American strength, but it isn’t without negative consequences. Our motto is E pluribus unum, but we are in some ways many nations rather than one. Those nations are different in terms of educational attainment, health, infant mortality, life-expectancy, income, fertility – and gun violence.

The reasons for that are complex, but the numbers are stark: The death rate for gun-related injuries is 18.5 per 100,000 for black Americans, nine per 100,000 among whites, seven per 100,000 among Hispanics, and 3.5 per 100,000 among all other groups.

The differences are more striking when we look at different states. Nationwide, the rate of death by gun-related injury for blacks is double the rate for whites. In Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Michigan it is over 4 times the rate for whites. In California and New York, it is 2.6 times the death rate for whites. Only in Utah, Alaska, Hawaii and Maine is the gun-related death rate higher for whites than for blacks.

The rate of gun-related deaths varies enormously by state. In Nevada, the rate among whites is 16.3 per 100,000 (over 21 for blacks), and it’s 15 per hundred thousand or more in New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming and Mississippi. For blacks, the rate is over 30 per 100,000 in Missouri, and peaks at over 40 per 100,000 in the District of Columbia.

Another stark difference between races is this: Five of every six gun-related deaths among whites are suicide; five of every six gun related deaths among blacks is homicide.

These differences are further accentuated by gender; about 80 percent of gun-related deaths in the U.S. are men. If you are a woman – and especially a white woman – you are at about as much risk of gun-related violence in the U.S. as you are in Germany. If you are a black man under 24, your risk is about the same as it would be in countries like Somalia.

If the total difference in rates of gun-related violence between races is complex, some of the major points are obvious. Much gun-violence is the result of gang and drug-related violence – over 80 percent in some cities. The war on drugs has had a profound and negative impact on urban minorities, and that impact includes high death rates.

Poverty rates are greater among blacks than among whites, and poverty is associated with crime. The relationship is not simple, though, as demonstrated by the lower gun-violence rates among Hispanics.

The different nation inhabited by black Americans is more violent than the one inhabited by white Americans. Some of this is clearly the result of social policy and criminal law, as with the war on drugs. The reasons for black poverty are both historical (slavery and Jim Crow) and modern (bad social and economic policy). The difference is not that blacks are more likely to be mentally ill or that they have more access to guns.

President Obama’s executive actions will probably prevent some shootings, but the impact will probably be lost in the statistical noise. They will have absolutely no impact on gang and drug-related violence. They will not keep guns out of the hands of people like the shooters at Aurora (minors who couldn’t buy guns in the first place), Newtown (a mentally ill young man who got his guns from his mother), or San Bernardino (an upstanding citizen). They will not prevent acts of terror or reduce the rate of suicide.

None of this means that Obama shouldn’t act, nor that his actions are meaningless. They simply don’t deal with the problem that scares most people – the possibility of being shot in a random act of violence or while being victimized in another crime – or reduce the rate of gun violence in America.

We left the question of why the American murder rate is relatively high unanswered, though an answer is suggested by our racial and ethnic diversity, which in turn argues that we shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to Iceland and Japan in the first place. America is a dynamic nation, in which new groups arrive, assimilate, and jockey for position against a constantly changing economic background. It might make sense to compare Vermont to Denmark, but the only comparison to America is Europe, and only if you were to toss Europe’s people across the continent with a big dose of immigrants.

For good and for ill, America is exceptional. Obama downplays that exceptionalism, as does anyone else who compares us to Japan or Germany. Ignore it, and you can never deal with gun violence, or with any of our other problems.

Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.